Listening to Nikes*


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Ratcliffe’s ideas on listening metonymically caught my attention.  When I read chapter three, I wrestled with the notion of this principle applying only to race and gender.  I don’t believe that it does.  And for the record, I don’t feel that Ratcliffe would, either, though obviously her focus is on race and gender issues.  Rather, I was drawn to this section because, at a basic level, I found myself as a teacher of writing, I sometimes feel like I’m speaking for all writers when I discuss writing concepts with my students.  Naturally, I try to hedge my bets, so they say, in my teaching practices, informing students of conventions to follow, conventions to break, and the good sense to understand the rhetoric of the situation.

Of course, I don’t speak for all writing instructors, and I know of several that would think my methodologies and conceptions of “good writing” to be flat-out wrong.  I’m reminded of a recent argument between the director of freshmen comp at UCO and one of the lecturers about the use of “I” in a paper.  The lecturer, locked in an outdated idea of writing, was shouting about how the paper should be failed–shouting, by the way, at his boss.  Okay, it’s not a great example of good teaching, but it is a good example of how I can’t speak for every instructor.  I tell my students to ask their instructors what they want in a paper.  Every instructor is different, and a kind of academic code-switching has to take place if they want to really succeed.

The rhetorical situation changes.  Yes.  We know this.  Students don’t.  Yes.  We know this.  My guess is that you’re not reading this anyway because you’re staring at the giant butt below this paragraph.  Monster guitar lady concrete soup Russia shoe car.

My students usually have a ball analyzing this ad.  Go figure.  Good thing, too, because Nike released an entire campaign for their Nike Women line of clothing and shoes.  I’ve only included a couple but every ad is similar to those I’ve posted: a portion of a woman’s body (always in black and white) against a stark white background with color splotches, some advertising shlock masking itself as empowered feminist poetry, and a swoosh.

As a class, we break down and critique this ad.  One point students inevitably bring up (and if they don’t, I try to steer them in this direction) is the fact that we don’t know anything about the woman in the ad based on her appearance–in fact, much has been done to mask her appearance.  We only see a portion of her body, in black and white, no evidence of ethnicity, age, etc.  We never, ever see her face.  This kind of advertising tactic ensures a strange complicating of Ratcliffe’s ideas: “Listening metonymically signifies the rhetorical-listening moves that listeners may make in public discussions when identifying a text or a person with a cultural group; specifically, this tactic invites listeners to assume that a text or a person is associated with–but not necessarily representative of–an entire cultural group” (78).  In a sense, these ads seem to speak for women, though not a group.  There is a factioning of women between those who scorn the athletic (according to Nike) and those that get scorned.  However, the ad also invites women to identify with it–the “I am proud of who I am” ethos that is ever-so-unsubtly-shoved-in-our-faces.

When my students and I discuss this ad, the language always comes up.  Deviously, I push this lesson to occur after logical fallacies, so when “it’s a border collie that herds skinny women away from the best deals” appears, students shout “false analogy!” at me.  False analogy yes, but it’s also one instance of Ratcliffe’s dysfunctional silence: “Function 4: A rhetoric of dysfunctional silence proceeds via the interpretive trope of reading metaphorically.  Because metaphor assumes that two unlike objects share a substance that marks them for comparison, the trop of reading metaphorically assumes that a text or person shares substance with all other members of its/his/her associated cultural group” (92).  But not to worry! Nike’s got all women covered, right? After all, there are other ads in the campaign, and surely one of their metaphors will hit home…right?

Okay, so she just needs a man? Er…

So…she’s just mannish?

Have kids, they make grandkids = fulfillment.

Maybe I’m making too much of this (he writes, donning his “this is what a Feminist looks like” t-shirt).  After all, these are just ads, and a student can easily see that they have no real bearing on their own reality.  We hope.  Ratcliffe notes that a “rhetoric of listening proceeds via a cultural logic that recognizes differences as well as commonalities” (95).  And that’s where these ads don’t work.  What differences they impart are imposed–herding skinny women from the best deals, my mother worries I’ll never marry, etc.  This form of cultural logic use easy tropes, best left to sitcoms from another era.  To use them in this confusing manner, well, confuses the listeners.

About halfway through writing this entry I realized how similar it is to Friday’s class.  The difference is both obvious and subtle: I teach freshmen (usually).  It’s an easy guess that we, as graduate students in a rhetoric class, are far more aware of the inner workings of language and the external executions of that language than our freshmen students are.  We may live the “life of the mind,” but our minds are constantly working to analyze, well, everything.  Speaking from my own experience, I have a hard time watching the news, reading the paper, or even going to a restaurant without some analysis happening in my head (and it’s annoying to many).  I’m sure I’m not alone in this.  But our students don’t often consider the “hidden” messages that we so plainly see.  If they do have some analytical experience, it’s rudimentary (this, too, is from personal experience).  As a teacher of freshmen composition, I have found that critical analysis is an immeasurably important skill to teach.  Imagery, especially advertisements that utilize a mixture of text and images, offer easy entry into a form of rhetorical listening.  We can ask “what do images want from us?” and “what does this entity, company, etc., want me to believe–and why?”

Although I believe that Ratcliffe offers more tools to combat and counter preconceived (and ill-conceived) notions of gender and race, it seems that her larger goal concerns the ability of people to become mediators, agents of change whose purpose is to be engaged with each other and the surrounding culture at large.

*apologies to Malcolm Gladwell for lifting the title from his most excellent essay “Listening to Khakis


Listening Write(ly)


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Audiences listen to speakers for three reasons, according to Aristotle (qtd. in Burke):  to hear advice about the future, to pass judgment on a past action, or simply for the sake of interest in a subject.  And yet, Ratcliffe observes that Aristotle didn’t explain HOW to listen (p. 20).  Now, how do these audience rationales weave their way into technical writing discourse?  Or, as Dr. Lewis asked in class, how could technical writing be taught with rhetorical listening as a goal?  My limited experience has me somewhat stymied as to how this question can be fully answered.  We discuss traditional notions of rhetoric (audience, ethos, etc.), but I had not considered gender or race as having a strong presence in the technical writing curriculum.  Nevertheless, I typed “gender technical writing” in a search bar on my Internet browser and found this list of works pertaining to using nonsexist language:

  •  Christian, Barbara. “Doing Without The Generic He/Man in Technical Communication.” Journal of Technical Writing and Communication 16 (1986): 87-98.
  • Council of Biology Editors. CBE Style Manual. Bethesda: Council of Biology Editors, Inc., 1983.
  • Dodd, Janet S., ed. The ACS Style Guide: A Manual for Authors and Editors. Washington, DC: American Chemical Society, 1986.
  • Martyna, Wendy. “The Psychology of the Generic Masculine.” Women and Language in Literature and Society. Ed. S. McConnell-Ginet, R. Borker, and N. Furman. New York: Praeger Publishers, 1980.
  • Miller, Casey, and Kate Swift. The Handbook of Nonsexist Writing For Writers, Editors and Speakers. New York: Lippincott & Crowell, 1980.
  • Nilsen, Alleen Pace. “Winning the Great He/She Battle.” College English 46 (1984): 151-157)

Unfortunately, I do not have time to peruse all of these sources, but the gist of the idea is that writers should make an effort to not assume (not disidentify?) gendership of the reader.  Author Jenny R. Redfern notes that “replacing every he with he or she attracts even more attention to gender and defeats your purpose. This predicament merits special attention in scientific and technical writing, where any ambiguity is unacceptable,” (

I think Ms. Redfern’s advice may apply Ratcliffe’s techniques outlined on p. 26:  promoting understanding of self and other; proceeding within an accountability logic; locating identifications across commonalities and differences; and analyzing claims as well as the cultural logics within these claims function. The proposal and formal report assignments can benefit from these techniques, as discussed below, but along the way to research, I came across this course description:  “Race, Class, and Gender in the Professional Workplace” an advanced composition course taught by Dr. Engles at Eastern Illinois University in 2006. If only I had his syllabi!

Pedagogically, the aim to discuss race, class and gender in the workplace sounds like an ideal, lofty goal, similar to Ratcliffe’s goal of listening rhetorically, and I am intrigued by her question on p. 53, How may scholar/teachers in rhetoric and composition studies navigate the modern/postmodern divide so as to theorize reformist concepts of identification, disidentification, and non-identification as places for rhetorical listening?  One way would be to embrace Burke’s notion of identification, that of persuading [a man] by identifying your ways with his (p. 55).  Another would be to introduce the above arguments for bypassing gendered writing (technical writing privileges objectivity, after all).

This leads me to our ENGL3323 assignments for writing an internal proposal and the consequent external (or formal) report.  This is a collaborative assignment.  Relentlessly, I tell my students to invoke a shared context to set the stage for optimum results ~ in fact, they are using their available means of persuasion (Aristotle) to identify with a decision-maker’s ways (Burke).  This is where Burke’s argument for consubstantiality shows up:  If we truly want to understand each other, we need to express or assume some shared experience or values (p. 20). 

In the internal proposal assignment, my students are encouraged to use this identification by writing sentences to the decision-maker that indicate a mutual desire or outcome:  improvements, eliminations, assessments and so on.  Perhaps this addresses Ratcliffe’s statement that consubstantiality “signifies a place of bridged differences and common ground, a place form which to act for common cause,” (p. 55). The differences in the proposal can be found in many of my students’ initial introductions (“OSU has a problem because not all professors use D2L” or “ABC company should initiate this program to eliminate its current problems”).  The writers do not understand that a shared context can pave the way to better communication.  After we discuss what a shared context means, students rewrite their comments to reflect their perceptions of the reader.  Not ideal, as we know, but a starting point for increasing awareness about other people’s feelings, knowledge and attitudes.  Some proposals involve politics (city ordinances, civic clubs) while others advocate for awareness (campaigns for the public or for OSU students); any type of proposal benefits from writers realizing that the “key rhetorical process through which poets and ordinary people attempt to persuade others,” (p. 55) is identification. Perhaps the collaboration of the teams of three could be asked to write various versions of a shared context, based on their understanding of what commonalities and differences they may share with their decision-maker/reader.


Now,  I insert a part of Steve Pederson’s post because I cannot say it any better (without his permission due to the hour, and my shaking from the earthquake while I am writing):

“In traditional Aristotelian rhetoric, persuasion is the goal.  This poses a very one-to-one dynamic, where the speaker persuades an audience. 




Audience Analysis

In Burke’s re-evaluation of Aristotelian rhetoric, he presents a theory of identification that complicates this simple one-to-one dynamic, highlighting the symbolic and non-symbolic forms of communication based in identifications (which precedes persuasion).  In this way, the identification that exists between the speaker and the audience creates (in an idealized sense) a symbolic realm of shared space (aka “consubstantiality”).”











I submit that “shared space” could be “shared context.”  Now my challenge is to further develop a lesson plan or perhaps guidelines that will help technical writing students become aware of their differences in knowledge and their assumptions about their audiences so that they will incorporate rhetorical listening into their written texts.  Does anyone have $64.00? 

Listening critically

Some of you may have wondered why I seem to have been compelled to dig myself into a hole in class discussions all week. In part, I will explain here, it is because of how the issue of rhetorical listening was framed for me by my professionalization projects. It will take a little time to set up, so please bear with me.

I presented two of my projects just last Friday (the teaching activity and the annotated bibliography), but it’s the third one, a conference submission, that is relevant here. I finally got around to writing an abstract for a study I did several years ago during a discourse analysis class.  I looked at the way CNN and al-Jazeera covered a single story, the 2003 kidnapping of a Lockheed-Martin engineer in Saudi Arabia by a group calling themselves al Qaeda of the Arabian Peninsula. This group demanded that the Saudi government release al Qaeda prisoners, or they would execute their hostage. I examined the referring expressions used to describe the two main actors in the story – the engineer (an American named Paul Johnson) and the group that had abducted him.

Similar to Danielle’s class project, I focused on lexical items, and found that although CNN and al-Jazeera did not disagree on any of the facts of the case, the lexical items they used told widely different narratives that likely reflected their political stance. In CNN’s version, Johnson was a victim of a criminal kidnapping by known terrorists. But in the al-Jazeera coverage, Johnson was portrayed as a military target who had been captured by Saudi dissidents. Where CNN’s lexical choices suggested a paradigm of criminal hostage-taking, al-Jazeera’s suggested a paradigm of legitimate political dissent, and the seizure of a military adversary. These widely differing editorial stances were revealed by the connotations of their lexical choices; or alternatively, if you will, by rhetorically listening to the texts and deciphering the connotations of their chosen vocabulary.

But listening carefully can be tricky, and if we strain to listen too hard, sometimes we hear only what we expected to hear. In the process we “confirm” truths that we already believed before we even began to listen. My methodology in the study – examining specific lexical choices as a way of determining editorial stance/ political ideology – had many years earlier gained widespread acceptance among practitioners of Critical Discourse Analysis, which aims in part to uncover exploitative attitudes toward race and gender,  by analyzing written and spoken language. While I can identify with these aims, in practice I often find the claims of critical discourse analysts to be very unconvincing, as the implications they allege to be present in a text are based solely on their own intuitive sense of what particular words or phrases mean.

In an egregious example that I cited in my paper, one researcher analyzed coverage of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict that included this sentence: “The violence surged as Palestinians marked the 13th anniversary of the first uprising in the West Bank and Gaza Strip.” From this, he claimed that “the verb surged, borrowed from the domain of electricity, is used to give the impression that the Palestinians are so full of hatred that they create acts of violence as fast as an electric current”. This is, in my opinion, absurd. And I would argue that impressions such as this come only from the researcher’s own pre-conceptions, not from the text itself. So in my own study, I based my claims about the implications of the two news outlets’ lexical items on how those items had actually been used in a large corpus of spoken and written news discourse. The corpus showed, for example, that capture was used exclusively in the context of detention by uniformed authorities.

But enough of the setup. With this fresh in my mind, I have been skeptical all week about claims that a particular rhetorical choice – whether in a text or a photograph – implies a particular meaning that I myself do not immediately grasp. In doubting Ratcliffe’s deliberate use of tactic over approach, I was quite simply wrong, although I am still skeptical about some of the explanations for this choice that I heard voiced in class discussion, and wonder what connotations we might have claimed for these lexical items had we been trying to prove a different point. But as for yesterday’s discussion, I remain unconvinced as to the significance of the white model’s word-sandals. I simply don’t see/hear those connotations when I look at/listen to the image, so I wonder if those connotations come in part from what we were trying to look/listen for, not from the text itself.

The danger with listening for subtext is that we might hear only what we want to hear, and the claims we might make when analyzing discourse are based more on our own minds than on the discourse itself. Taken to the extreme, this kind of analysis can resemble a modern form of phrenology, the late 19th/early 20th century pseudoscience still widely remembered for its “scientific” justification for racism. Phrenologists held that the shape of the skull was a reliable way of measuring a person’s behavior, morals, and intellect – a claim that was later found to have absolutely no basis in fact. They further claimed that the skull shapes of non-white races offered conclusive evidence of their moral and intellectual inferiority (see the attached images from phrenology textbooks). The discipline of phrenology, which was overwhelmingly if not exclusively white, listened for what human physiology would tell us, and lo and behold! It told them exactly what they already believed – that white people were innately superior.

Anyway, with the issue of subjective interpretation framed for me by my third professionalization project, I’ve been skeptical all week about how we interpret the implications of rhetorical choices. I do not think that it is a waste of time to listen for these implications, but I do think it is often worth asking ourselves how reliable our own inferences are.

Extending the Theory of Identification for Critical Action

In chapter 2 of Rhetorical Listening: Identification, Gender, Whiteness, Krista Ratcliffe complicates Kenneth Burke’s notion of identification in some really interesting ways. For this week’s weblog post, I will explore this chapter more and attempt to highlight some of the significance of what she refers to as “identification” and how she extends this idea to address inequities in power and cross-cultural communication for critical action in classroom pedagogy.

Near the opening of the chapter, Ratcliffe is quick to mention the importance of Burke’s theory of identification and consubstantiality in relation to rhetoric and composition scholarship. But just as quickly, she writes, “As a place for rhetorical listening, however, Burke’s concept of identification is limited” (47). Upon first reading, I was a little defensive and irked, wanting to question her critique of Burke.  But after diving into the chapter, I started to see that Ratcliff’s point here is less a critique of identification and more of an interesting expansion of the theory to provide ways of seeing the “coercive force of common ground” and “uneven power dynamics” (47).

In class, we were able to provide some illustrations as a way of grounding our understanding of Ratcliffe’s chapter. I found this particularly helpful, and I thought I would use my illustration to elaborate on Ratcliffe’s ideas.  In traditional Aristotelian rhetoric, persuasion is the goal.  This poses a very one-to-one dynamic, where the speaker persuades an audience.

In Burke’s re-evaluation of Aristotelian rhetoric, he presents a theory of identification that complicates this simple one-to-one dynamic, highlighting the symbolic and non-symbolic forms of communication based in identifications (which precedes persuasion).  In this way, the identification that exists between the speaker and the audience creates (in an idealized sense) a symbolic realm of shared space (aka “consubstantiality”):

In Ratcliffe’s attempt to extend Burke’s work here, she highlights how “identifications,” in this scheme of understanding communication, allows a person to spot, what she terms as “disidentifications” and “nonidentifications.” In this way, in conjunction with rhetorical listening, a person is able to discern “troubled identifications” (48) that instill, reinforce, and perpetuate power inequities.

I thought that this was an intriguing approach into studying issues of power, hegemony, marginalization, and gender inequality. Early in my Masters program, I attended a conference at the University of San Francisco for the National Association for Humanities Education. At this conference, the guest speaker was Robert Scholes, a modernist who teaches at Brown ( During his speech, he presented a technique for looking at old 1950s advertisements as a way of unearthing old values, beliefs, and assumptions.  I thought of this speech as I was reading back through this chapter and considering Ratcliffe’s extension of Burke’s theory of identification.  Looking at what is “identified” (disidentified or non-identified), whether today or the past, allows a person to critically evaluate the assumptions, bias, and beliefs present in context of the work.

By the end of the chapter, Ratcliff poses some interesting ethical questions about how to move forward with this theoretical perspective. She emphasizes both ethical possibilities and risks (77).  She goes on to write, “Given these possibilities and given these risks, perhaps the most ethical action is to acknowledge the risks and to act anyway, for as Rich claims, ‘[W]e can’t wait to [act] until we are perfectly clear and righteous’” (77).  I like this idea. It is the musical equivalent of Rage Against The Machine: “It has to start some place. / It has to start sometime. / What better place than here? / What better time than now.”

A rhetoric of listening to all audiences


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I found Ratcliffe’s book refreshing. As an undergraduate communications major, I was engaged in many a classroom discussion on “listening” as being just as important to communication as speaking (which I am using metonymically for all ways of initiating communication). That is, rhetoric/communication isn’t just the study of how to present your message to others via speaking, writing, symbolizing, etc. There is a flip side that carries just as much weight – listening, reading, seeing, etc. Without both equally, rhetoric/communication is crippled. It is ineffective. What is a rhetor without an audience, and vice versa?

In rhetoric we must remember not to see our audience as the other that we are speaking/writing to. The rhetor is also the audience. The audience isn’t the only one listening in communication. The speaker is also listening to her/his audience. The process of communication is circular. This is a truth that I see as central to the idea that rhetoric is epistemic, an idea that greatly appeals to me.

Robert L. Scott first introduced the idea that rhetoric is epistemic in 1967. In short, it posits that rhetoric helps to formulate our perceptions of reality. (Some argue the theory says rhetoric creates reality, but I will not address this debate here. Personally, I think the debate is pointless, but I’ll save that for another time.) And by giving us perceptions of reality, rhetoric becomes epistemic as it becomes a path towards knowing.

What comes to mind first are the most obvious ways that this can be true, such as in the symbolic construction of abstract entities like “community”, “culture”, “society.” One might even go so far as to add “gender” or “race.” (Yes, there are scientific definitions for “gender” and “race.” But it’s important to note that these are scientific opinions which are not without some dissent.) Gender is not to be confused with “sex.” The latter denotes having male or female sexual organs. Gender, on the other hand, does not correspond to something we can concretely experience in reality. “Gender” can refer to something as abstract as “gender roles,” which are concepts formed through communication and mutual understanding. Like “community”, “gender” is rhetorically constructed. I’m inclined to refer to our standard definitions of such concepts as having only rhetorical truths.

Ratcliffe’s “rhetorical listening” idea is central to our strive for the intersubjectivity necessary for many “truths” to exist. For example, I am studying the domains of American political discourse which have constructed the rhetorical truth of the American two-party system. Interestingly, the only way the United States could legally and concretely have a two-party system would be if the United States Constitution stipulated such. It does not. What we have in the U.S. are state laws, put in place by the two major parties, that place restrictions to ballot access for all other parties, which gives us a two-party system only in effect, not officially. Still, it is generally accepted that the U.S. is a two-party system because we have agreed to conceptualize it as such because of the control the two major parties have over ballot access. It is a rhetorically constructed truth, albeit a very practical one.

I’m using this example obviously for my own rhetorical purposes, but if you listen to my text rhetorically, I hope what you will hear is that Ratcliffe’s message can be expanded far beyond the domains of race and gender. We must remember that there are great implications for the social construction of truths that include the marginalization of groups other than those of the most popular topics. Race and gender “othering” is a popular topic (but not any less important) compared to my familiar domain of minor political party othering. Those who don’t have a voice in America’s democratic process are simply scoffed at and made the brunt of jokes. It’s too bad. These groups and the many “others” who feel voiceless also deserve to be heard. We must rhetorically listen to that little voice inside telling us to rhetorically listen for the faint sounds of all “others.”

Who Am I?

Who Am I?
(Original Platinum & Palladium print by Roger Mullins, copyright 2009).

I continue to work through a number of issues since we started to read Ratcliffe’s work. While I agree with her efforts to create a framework for recognizing how whiteness and gender inform the power differentials in America, I take exception to certain premises that serve as the bases of her argument. First, I do not cleave to her claim that reading texts is “listening.” Though Ratcliffe is quick to dismiss the graduate student who “prefac[ed] her remarks with, ‘Of course, what you’re really talking about is a kind of reading’” (23), I embrace that student’s remark. Considering Ratcliffe’s entire work consumes 171 pages, I’ve been on the defensive about her argument from the beginning. I’m reading a text—symbols physically printed on sheets of paper collated in a particular fashion based on the (more than a) thousand year old convention of the codex that I hold in my hands. I acknowledge that the codex is a removal from the scroll, and that the digital book is a removal from (but an homage to) the codex.

That said, I am not hearing the words, and am not therefore listening to them. I read and analyze and evaluate the symbols on the page based on my (limited) understanding of the conventions of standard American usage and grammatical conventions. In other words, I embrace standard English with the understanding that I’m theoretically supporting a codified patriarchal white male language system. As a brief aside, I agree with Stephen that many non-standard English constructions do communicate clearly. A few years ago I read a number of critics who described conventions in Black English– such as the double-negative construction– as being as deeply inscribed and codified as standard English conventions. However, I subscribe to the idea that all cultures embrace a standard language to facilitate communication across the variations that occur within the boundaries of a country/culture.

I’m unconvinced today that reading and listening are covalent (yes, I know the term specifically applies to chemistry, and describes shared electrons at the atomic level—but the idea of fundamental shared bonds is relevant to this discussion), and because of that I’m skeptical about much of the argument that follows. For example, I have further issues with her (re)definition of eavesdropping. First, I admire any writer who tries to rescue a cliché or examine accepted meanings. See Gary Larson, a white male cartoonist, as an example.

Rescuing a cliché.

However, I don’t believe that Ratcliffe’s definition of eavesdropping is accurate. More precisely, I don’t believe she has successfully appropriated the word, stripped it of its negative connotations, and recast it as a positive verb. None of the definitions from the OED (I have the 12 volume set plus 3 supplements for sale at $850, and I extend an additional 20% discount to my classmates) are neutral; each of the definitions state or imply that the eavesdropper is listening in on private, secret conversations. While Ratcliffe wishes to justify her redefinition by wrapping it up with the pretty ribbon of ethical eavesdropping (or listening), her example of the “cocktail guy”(101-104) undermines her authority.

First, she takes one sentence out of the greater context in which it was offered and takes issue with it. We do not know if the speaker and his comment was ironic, arrogant, ignorant, or facile. What I see Ratcliffe do is to use the non-standard term “guy” repeatedly thereafter when she refers to that speaker and that comment. Furthermore, in the three pages following that overheard comment, she uses the non-standard or diminutive term “coctail-guy” or “boys” or “white guy” five times—and another three times at the end of the chapter. As we’ve noted in class, Ratcliffe uses terms purposefully and carefully. So what is her purpose in repeating the slang/non-standard/or diminutive term for man—especially this man—so frequently? Yes, I am a man of a certain age, and have no personal issue with the term guy—I self-identify as a guy, and sometimes a boy, especially to my parents and sister (I am not now, nor have I ever been a dude). I find Ratcliffe’s use of the term suspect as she seems to be mocking both the speaker and his use of the noun as an identifier. He is reduced to “cocktail-guy” instead of man or male. His use of the term is used against him, IMHO.
The thing is, I find Ratcliffe to be articulate, intelligent, and sincere. Her efforts to reveal and discuss whiteness and gender are important as part of the continuum of previous and future discussions. I just don’t think she’s saying anything that I haven’t heard in the past forty years (this raises the question of whether or not I’ve listened to what I’ve heard).
I’m offering one more video here because I’m interested in the arts. This does go beyond Ratcliffe’s discussion in many ways, but I ask you to view it and think about this: Don’t these artists embody—even typify white privilege? I have some thoughts about that question, and I’m curious to know if I’m overthinking this. I tried to embed the following link. You may have to cut and paste, but it’s worth the effort.

<iframe src=”; width=”640″ height=”360″ frameborder=”0″ webkitAllowFullScreen allowFullScreen></iframe><p>Video from <a href=””>KarmaTube</a></p&gt;

As a parting note: I do find Ratcliffe compelling; I’m always interested to further understand how I can be a better person, and part of that comes from reading and listening to other voices and attempting to understand experiences other than my own. She offers ways that I can be further open to discussions of pigmentation and culture (or race and ethnicity, if you prefer) in my classes and between my colleagues and peers, so I want to be clear that I’m not hostile to her or her efforts; I just don’t fully embrace her methodology or definitions.

Whiteness in the Second Grade

Earlier this week my older sister called me in an uproar. My niece (Amaya), who is in the second grade, has been very unhappy at school for the past few weeks and after much prodding she finally broke down and told me sister about two girls in her class who had been bullying her and a friend. Most of the bullying was targeted at Amaya’s friend Caleb, a young boy who is half African-American, and consisted of run-of-the-mill bullying: pencil stealing, lunch box hiding, playground teasing, etc. However, several days ago one of the girls told Amaya’s friend that his “skin color is ugly” and that “white is right.” Once my initial feelings of outrage and disgust subsided, I realized this was an opportunity to listen rhetorically in order evaluate the identifications and implications circling through the situation.

First, although Ratcliffe cautions against adopting a “color-blind” approach to race issues because it completely disregards differences, in this case it is difference that has made Caleb a target. Here I part ways with Ratcliffe to a certain degree and wonder if “color-blindness” is what should be encouraged when addressing a group of second graders about race issues. At a predominately white school in a predominately white town, the girls making these comments are part of the dominant group, and Caleb’s different skin color sets him apart in a very apparent way. Perhaps at this level children should be encouraged to ignore skin color in order to prevent such dis/identification from occurring. At the very least this approach is a stop-gap until more complicated ideas about the intersections of whiteness can be understood. Ratcliffe writes that “differences must be bridged in order to construct a place of identification”, something the two second-grade bullies have not done, and that when the identification is made in terms of “not me” violence becomes a risk (59). The girls are disidentifying with Caleb, yet they seem aware of their own whiteness insofar as it is dominant and correct in terms of their own identifications. Granted, these girls are young are perhaps not aware of the weight their words carry, but it is discouraging to think children so young are already being socialized into an invisible whiteness that assumes privilege.

More than just the disidentifcation of the bullies, the teacher seems to be employing a form of dysfunctional silence in response to the racially charged actions and words taking place in her classroom, as there were no consequences for the use of such negative language. According to Ratcliffe, dysfunctional silence encourages readers (or in this case the teacher) to ignore such comments “by accepting them without critique” (87). At this point, I am no longer rhetorically listening to the underlying assumptions and presuppositions of a seven year old, but rather am overwhelmed by the “deafening silence” carried out by the teacher, who “discourages both speaking and listening” through her lack of intervention. Ratcliffe’s pedagogical listening is geared toward college teachers, but her tactics are applicable at any level. Ratcliffe challenges all teachers to help their students understand how the implications of cultural diversity are present everywhere, and acknowledge a responsibility for addressing, explaining, and naming their implications in a way that uncovers categories of dominant and non-dominant (136). The tactics used might be different in the college writing course, but the lessons about identification, gender, and whiteness are just as important and relevant in the elementary classroom.

More than just the words of the students and the silence of the teacher, I am concerned about the impact the ongoing bullying will have on Amaya and Caleb’s process of identification. In terms of Burke’s view of identification “the individual’s identity is formed by reference to his membership in a group” (qtd. in Ratcliffe 56), and Caleb is being excluded from the group based on a physical difference. While a single identification doesn’t make up a person’s identity, at this point in his life Caleb has been relegated to the position of “other” and denied membership in the group based on race. He will have to learn about the “dominant culture’s home place” if he is work, learn, and play alongside his white classmates, who, due to their position in the dominant group, will never be asked to do the same (63). Also, Ratcliffe says “easy identifications may mask power differentials and coerced differences” (72). Though the bullies have made easy, surface level identifications with their classmates based the white/black binary, more specific identifications could result in the exclusion of my niece whose paternal heritage is Middle Eastern. Amaya’s “race” reminds me of Ratcliffe’s “pacific islander” student who was born and raised in Illinois: Amaya cannot mark “white” on a survey, but she does not identify with the “middle eastern/Arab” bubble either.

Honestly, I’m saddened that at seven years old my niece and her classmates are already aware of and forwarding the white/black, white/non-white binaries that haunt our country. In fact, a recent study conducted by UCLA found that children as young as seven were aware of the “ethnically-based stigma” that runs through American culture. Second graders are “sensitive to ethnic attitudes in society” and those ethnic attitudes are being expressed in full force in Amaya’s class. Ratcliffe’s suggestion of rhetorical listening could help addressed this situation if employed by the adults involved because troubled identifications become more audible, more visible, and easier to navigate with increased awareness (66). Rhetorical listening should be use not just to listen metonymically or pedagogically with students who are able to serve as active participants in the conversation, but as a means of addressing the troubled identifications surfacing at all levels.

Reconsidering Losing Control

Before Friday’s class discussion, I was prepared to examine Ratcliffe’s ideas on rhetorical listening and Peter Elbow’s activity believe/doubting.  However, after the too brief examination of fears in the classroom, I shall examine my past experiences and listen rhetorically so that my reflection can open up areas of improvement.

Ratcliffe claims that teachers have three fears in the classroom when discussion of race or whiteness enters:  “(1) fears about job status; (2) fears about losing control of the class; (3) fears about lacking the authority of lived experience when discussing resistance-prone issues.  Although these fears my initially stymie action, they may also be revisioned as sites for instigating productive pedagogical action” (139).  In the context of the first item, my job status has always been unsecure as a graduate student and as an adjunct, so I will not waste more time developing this line of thought.  The second detail provides some trepidation.  While at OSU-OKC, a small satellite community college, I taught two sections of Composition One.  My paper sequence wasn’t unusual, but was in line with my other sections elsewhere.  During essay two’s sequence, I selected Peggy McIntosh’s “White Privilege:  Unpacking the Invisible Knapsack” so that my students could see some “invisible” ideas pushing on their identities (My assignment examines identity within the context of a larger group the student identifies with).  When the day came for the students to discuss McIntosh’s piece, I was nervous but excited.  This particular classroom dynamic included several concurrently enrolled high school seniors, a mix of income, several races, and, finally, different age groups.  To say the least, this was not a homogenous group.

The discussion began well enough, but halfway through the class, social niceties broke down.  One of the white students questioned if this article’s ideas were still relevant, to which one student, an older black woman stated” McIntosh’s list has been taught to her and her family for years.”  This was an interesting comment since the woman never encountered McIntosh’s actual list, but a list that her family constructed on perceived experiences in American culture.   I hesitate to relay the rest of the class, but after this line of examination, the class structure broke down completely.  The students refused to “hear” any opposing views, arms were crossed and faces wore a frown for the remainder of the time.

After this class, I swore never to teach McIntosh’s essay again.  I was rattled by the events in the class and assumed nothing of value could come of the experience.  I also assumed Comp One was not the place to examine these types of issues.   But graduate school has a funny way of re-examining past experiences in a useful way.  According to Ratcliffe, these “fears may also be revisioned as an invitation for teachers to examine what we mean by “losing control,” reflect on its implications, and brainstorm and research strategies for retaining a civil forum during uncomfortable discussions” (140).  Reflecting on the past, what startled me most was not the comments made—certainly some were fascinating—but that I never thought my class would become so passionate.  These reactions were not commensurate with past class discussions.  But in my act of reflecting, and the massive amount of reading since this class, I’ve discovered that McIntosh’s piece doesn’t need to be forgotten in my classroom, just re-invented.

To re-invent discussions of gender, whiteness, and race, I must provide space for my students to see the privileging of certain aspects of their life.  McIntosh’s list creates an important starting point, but for a classroom in the 2010’s, more relevant examples from popular culture can be found.  One example from Modern Family’s newest episode focuses on the lack of experience.  This example starts at minute 6:31.

The representation that Haley’s character provides is an interesting example of what some students face.  Radcliffe’s analysis only mentions teacher experiences, but students can also share Haley’s concern.  Journaling could provide the necessary space for students to reflect on events they have witnessed or taken part in. Students could certainly reflect on McIntosh’s list to see whether they have experienced the effects of white privilege too.

Secondly, if, as instructors, we ask our students to rhetorically listen, we must continue to examine texts around us that either reinforce gender and whiteness or, in the case of 30 Rock provide an avenue to critique societal “norms.”

These clips as well as other episodes provide a satirical perspective on certain tropes within our society.  As a class, students can unpack these two clips and decide what stereotypes are at play.  Certainly, a criticism could be leveled about these clips and how they are too blatant, but from an incoming freshman’s perspective, they may not see the stereotypes.   According to Ratcliffe “ listening pedagogically to distinguish between bodies and tropes help students and teachers understand how bodies are marked by gender and race/ethnicity in productive ways and how bodies are also stereotyped in nonproductive and dehumanizing ways.  Such understanding, then, becomes grounds for accountability and action” (156).  If students believe 30 Rock uncovers stereotypes such as the funny gay man and black woman, how then can we use satire for rhetorical purposes within a composition classroom to unpack other instances of privilege?

By providing these contemporary examples, students can begin the process of listening rhetorically for other examples of gender and whiteness and how privilege affects them.  Examples such as Modern Family and 30 Rock can provide a space for students to analyze their world and gain new perspective.  For a teacher, “losing control” from time to time provided more outlook for the next class discussion and to not be hesitant to tack controversial issues.

(Sorry about the clips.  It seems WordPress doesn’t like Hulu clips and it refuses to embed them for our convenience)

Eavesdropping on Memes

I am a fan of memes. To me, they represent who “we” are in a very real sense. After reading Ratcliffe, I guess I need to solidify who I mean by “we” (ooh, did you see that rhetorical listening I just did on myself?). By “we,” I guess I mean affluent, predominately white, educated, plugged-in (or digitally literate), young, American males obsessed with pop culture and inside jokes. So you very much may not be included in that group; but you might be, even if you aren’t an affluent, white, educated, plugged-in, young, American male obsessed with pop culture and inside jokes.

So let me start over. I love memes because I identify with those who are most likely to create, distribute, proliferate, and engage with them. I am a big fan of Know Your Meme, a for-profit website dedicated to cataloging and discussing memes and their implications in culture. I check it every once in a while, probably just to see what “my people” are thinking about and saying and whether or not I agree or disagree. Perhaps my own interaction with memes is mostly about identity building.

And so, maybe that is why I was primed to see this particular meme, “The Unhelpful High School Teacher” (or click the images in the gallery below to see a few instances of the meme) as a site of cognitive dissonance or a “margin of overlap” (66), as Ratcliffe calls it. My body has been troped, or marked, as a white, internet using, pop-culture obsessed American, but also as a teacher, and this meme represents a place where these two tropes are in conflict with each other. Which cultural trope am I supposed to side with? The inside-joke-loving, witty, participator-in-memes? Or the sincere teacher trying to be the best teacher I can be? If I am a meme-er (I just made that up), than I am engaging in an act that recognizes teachers as hypocritical, self-absorbed and stupid. But if I am a teacher, I could easily resist the messages in the meme and fail to recognize the validity of memes as culture. I could just say that the meme creators don’t understand teachers and are just spoiled anonymous kids sitting safe behind a computer their parents bought them. But by doing so, I am imposing false stereotypes on the group as a whole and turning my back on a group I identify with. So what’s the solution?


If I “[choose] to stand outside… in an uncomfortable spot… on the border of knowing and not knowing… granting others the inside position… listening to learn” (Ratcliffe, 105), I can learn from these memes without becoming defensive, or insulting the tropes I identify with. I can listen to the memes instead of defensively rejecting them outright. I can step outside of my roles as teacher and meme-er for just long enough to see the validity of the Unhelpful High School Teacher meme as culture and as constructive critique for all teachers.

For example, one instance of the meme (which is known as an exploitable, meaning it is an easily distributed image, which those who participate in the meme download and use various programs to add text to) quotes a fictitious teacher saying “‘What matters is how hard you tried'” at the top of the image and then “Has no way of assessing personal effort” at the bottom, is one where a margin of overlap happened for me. The top line of the meme is the setup and observes a typical behavior a teacher might do or say, and the bottom line is the rejoinder, which points out the hypocrisy or absurdity of the teachers behavior. When I listen rhetorically to this instance, I am faced with the very real truth that I have no way, or a very arbitrary way at best, of assessing personal effort. I have to humble myself and hold myself accountable for those accusations of hypocrisy and ignorance.

In an 2010 article in Composition Studies, Kerry Dirk points out that what some professors call a “Participation grade” is not really based on any real system to back it up, but is rather used to fudge grades one way or another based on a subjective feeling the teacher has for the student when it comes time to assign grades. So there is some very real truth to this internet meme and one that I need to now deal with as a teacher. However, without rhetorical listening, I would be forced to cling to one trope or the other and deny and defend (and possibly insult and harm), or simply feel internally dissonant looking at these memes.

When I rhetorically listen though, I don’t have to give up my role as a teacher to defend the validity of memes, and I don’t have to give up my role as a teacher to defend the integrity of other teachers like me (which is really just a way of defending myself and my own actions) by questioning the validity of memes or those that create them. I can be both at the same time by giving up both for a small amount of time to just listen. I can then begin the process of figuring out a way to assess personal effort, or else change find new motivation to unpack what I mean when I say (or think, or portray) that only personal effort matters. Rhetorically listening isn’t an end in itself, it is a gate that we walk through that requires more work after passing. But it also gives us a way as teachers and people to let go of tropes that cause conflict and listen in a way that can bring understanding.

Reading Burke

When reading Burke, I find it helpful to be mindful of the sections and subsections Burke creates in his work. Often, his work lacks the type of linearity that is common to most works. Each section and subsection can be read as a mini-argument/article in and of itself. There is logic in this, even as some critics struggle to find the coherence between it all.  My favorite quote regarding Burke’s difficulty in reading comes from James Kastely, when he writes that Burke is “Strunk and White’s worst nightmare.”

Burke is often regarded as being against “systems” of thought. He is hyper aware of the way symbolically constructed “systems” distort, overlook, and diminish a topic (or rather the flawed nature of using any type of grand “synecdoche” for basing conclusions).  Hence, he jokes about dramatism as being only one way (of many) in which to look at “human relations” (a term Rueckert has ascribed to Burke’s work).

Dr. Brooks has a theory that Burke is (purposively) challenging due to the heightened awareness of being seen as a communist.  It is true, the FBI did have a file on Burke because of his ties to the communist party (I think this was back in the 30s—but he quickly left the party).  Interestingly, the Kenneth Burke Society used to have the declassified FBI file online, but I couldn’t find it on the website now (

The important point here, when reading Burke’s Rhetoric of Motives, is to see the many perspective parts to the whole.  In class so far, we have read the first section (“The Range of Rhetoric”), and part of section two (“Traditional Principles of Rhetoric”).  The first section is full of very unique examples of just how far (and extensive) “rhetoric” can be seen:

  • Literature (Homer, Milton, Arnold, Coleridge, Wilde, Eliot, Shakespeare, etc.)
  • History/Social Issues in Time (Areopagitica 4, Hitler, War, Truman/Wallace, etc.)
  • Religion/Bible (God, angels, Philistines and Israelites, Babel, etc.)
  • Science/Technology
  • Philosophy
  • Sociology/Anthropology (witchcraft)
  • Psychology (Freud)

Out of this “range of rhetoric,” we discover some interesting principles that Burke develops:

  • Consubstantiality
  • Transformation
  • Essence
  • Identification
  • Redemption
  • Cooperation

These principles set the stage for Burke’s discussion about the traditional principles of rhetoric, where Burke highlights the importance of identification with rhetoric.  In the final section of the book (Order), we discover the myriad ways in which these principles (and the function of rhetoric) help establish divisions (and cooperative unions) that influence hierarchies of order. On the final page, Burke writes:

In hierarchy it can exist under many guises. Nature, society, language, and the division of labor—out of all or any of these the hierarchic motive inevitably develops . . .. in hierarchy reside the conditions of the “divine,” the goading of “mystery.” / But since, for better or worse, the mystery of the hierarchic is forever with us, let us, as students of rhetoric, scrutinize its range of entrancements, both with dismay and in delight.

Out of the Rhetoric of Motives, we discover a means by which to discern how society, language, and nature influence our actions, beliefs, and values. We discover the rhetorical influence found in motives, “both with dismay and in delight.”